The UFC Pioneer Series is going to highlight fighters that don’t get a lot of mainstream attention and helped develop the UFC to its current state. I think Chris Leben is a perfect example of this and that’s why I chose to begin this series with him.
MMA Record: 23 Wins, 11 Losses
Bareknuckle Boxing Record: 2 Wins, 1 Loss
Awards: UFC Fight of Night (x2), UFC Knockout of the Night (x4), WEC Middleweight Champion, Gladiator Challenge Middleweight Champion
An Introduction to a Mad Man (2002-2006)
Leben started his career with a very impressive 10-1 record. During this streak, Leben won the inaugural WEC middleweight title against soon to be UFC veteran Mike Swick. This earned Leben a chance to be part of the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter” TV series, where he would make quite a name for himself and not always in a good way. In the first episode, an intoxicated Chris Leben would urinate on a fellow contestant’s bunk (Jason Thatcher). Leben’s wild style in and outside of the cage helped make the show must-see TV. However, Leben would not win the show losing against Kenny Florian and Josh Koscheck. He would later fight Thatcher in the first TUF Finale scoring a first round TKO. Leben would have early success in the UFC winning five straight with wins against Patrick Cote and Jorge Rivera during the run. The dark side of Chris Leben was displayed on the show, but I don’t think many fans knew how serious his drug and alcohol problems were. He later admits to being blackout drunk days before the Cote fight and smoking crack with a bum even after being on the show. He would have continued success in MMA but struggled to kick these habits throughout his career.
The Octagon’s Ultimate Warrior (2006-2011)
Leben would now unconsciously be part of one of the biggest debuts in UFC history when he welcomed Anderson Silva to the Octagon in 2006. Leben attempted to make it brawl, but Silva’s striking was far to superior for him. Silva would pick him apart only needing 49 seconds to finish Leben in the first round with a knee to the head. Leben would then go on to have classic brawls in the octagon winning several fight of night and knockout of the night honors. He became a fan favorite as he was known to throw haymakers, leave the canvas bloody (his and the opponent’s blood), and having an iron chin during his prime.
My personal favorite fight of his was against Yoshihiro Akiyama, a back and forth war that all fight fans should watch just to understand the type of fight Leben was known for. Leben had wins and loses during this time period, but he was always entertaining to watch so it’s interesting to learn about the battles he had outside the arena. He admittedly had problems with opiates even experiencing withdrawal before fights. He stated in an interview with VICE fightland, “The nice thing was if you pop a couple Percocet or Oxycontin, people don’t notice—when you show up drunk to practice, that’s frowned on, not to mention it’s hard to lose weight when you’re drinking because there are so many calories in alcohol.” That statement and his actions give a lot of context to a fighter who threw caution to the wind in the ring every fight.
Going Out on His Shield (2011-2013)
Leben would fall on hard times at the end of his MMA career only winning one of his last six fights in the octagon. Notably in a loss to Mark Munoz in 2011, Leben would test positive for opiates and would check himself into a rehab facility. The road would end for him in a 2013 loss to Uriah Hall by TKO. In the years following Leben’s MMA retirement, he would be arrested several times and would have relapses with his addictions. Leben would attempt a return to fighting in 2016 with Bellator, but would fail the pre-fight exam with a heart condition. He then began a career in bare knuckle boxing in 2018.
As of the most recent reports, Chris Leben is sober and hasn’t had any recent arrests. I think Chris has an incredible fight history and a crazy personal story. He is one of many fighters that don’t get enough credit for the contributions they have made and personally he is one of my favorites of all time.
Featured Image Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today Sports
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